Thursday, April 23, 2009

He rose so that I may live

I've been tossing this post around in my head since sometime in November. Since it has to do with the resurrection, it didn't seem to make sense to write around Christmas. Then I thought about it some more and thought maybe I would write it as we got closer to Easter. Then at Easter it seemed almost too obvious of a time to write it. Over those 5 or 6 months, I have come back to the topic from time to time and thought about it, but I've never attempted to write it. Now that I finally sit down to do so, it seems bigger and I hope that I can adequately convey my thoughts, not have them sound like something you have heard or read a hundred times, and really share what has been a significant discovery for me.

For years when I have thought about the resurrection, and its importance, I have focused only on the idea that Jesus had conquered death. I recognized that it was important to demonstrate that Jesus was God, to fulfill prophesy and to show all of us that there is no need to fear death. But, frankly, I didn't really go any deeper than that. Instead, the importance of Easter, I thought, was really the crucifixion and death of Jesus. The idea that thousands of years before my birth, He took my sins upon Him and died for them, so that I would not have to.

I don't want this to sound like I am downplaying the importance of the crucifixion and the sacrifice of Jesus for my sins. It is still an issue that I struggle with all of the time. Although it should not be, I sometimes let it become a weight, a burden - the idea that Jesus died for my sins. Where He apparently thinks that I am worthy of such a sacrifice, I know better . . . .

But, for the first time, I really started to think about the importance of the resurrection in the whole picture. I'm still trying to figure this all out, and you may think that I am way off, or that I am missing something, or that everybody knows this. But, I write to worship and to share where I am.

In Experiencing the Heart of Jesus, a study guide for students, Max Lucado writes this fictional dialogue by God addressing our fear that we can make God stop loving us, or that there are limits on that love.

"You wonder how long my love will last? Find your answer on a splintered cross, on a craggy hill. That's me you see up there, your maker, your God, nail-stabbed and bleeding. Covered in spit and sin-soaked. That's your sin I'm feeling. That's your death I'm dying. That's your resurrection I'm living. That's how much I love you."

I got lost in that simple sentence - "That's your resurrection I'm living." It helped me come to realize that the resurrection is not just another miracle. It is not just the fulfilling of a prophesy. It is an essential part of the entire thing. Jesus had to be resurrected, so that I could live. Jesus died a human death on the cross for my sins. Without the resurrection, I died with Him. His rebirth is my birth - it is the living after the sin has been stripped away and forgiven. It is one of the reasons why it is significant that Jesus did not return as a ghost, but again, as a living human. As it says in the gospel of Luke talking about Jesus appearing to his disciples after the resurrection:

"They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, 'Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.'" Luke 24:37-39 (NIV)

Paul, in Second Corinthians says "And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again." 2 Corinthians 5:15 (NIV)

I have heard multiple times the phrase - "He died so that I may live." As discussed above, I agree with the staggering importance of the death, but I think that it is equally accurate and important to say - "He rose so that I may live." That, too, often is something that I do not think that I deserve. But it is an incredible example of His love, commitment and power.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Danger of Getting Fat and Happy

In Deuteronomy, Moses has finished leading the Israelites to the Promised Land. It is just on the other side of that river. The forty years of wandering are over and the people are about to reach the land that is overflowing with milk and honey (after, of course, a little bit of warfare that will be necessary to get rid of the current occupants). God has told Moses that as punishment, he will not be permitted to cross into the Promised Land himself. Under God's instruction, Moses calls all of the Israelites together and speaks to them, telling them "all that the Lord had commanded him concerning them." Deuteronomy 1:3 (NIV)

There is a lot in that speech that can and should be studied. One of those things that I have been thinking about is the warning in Deuteronomy 8:10-20.

"When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. . . . You may say to yourself, 'My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.' But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.

If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed, Like the nations the Lord destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the Lord your God."

The New Living Translation has a slightly different version that I find interesting. Both translations tell of Moses talking about God leading the people out of slavery. From there (replaced with the ellipses above), Moses talks about how God cared for the people as they wandered the desert, providing protection, water, manna, etc. Picking up at 8:17, the NLT reads "He did all this so you would never say to yourself, 'I have achieved this wealth with my own strength and energy.'"

It is a subtle distinction, and one that may not even really exist if you read the NIV version with that in mind. But I think it is important not only that Moses is warning against thinking that we are responsible for our successes, but reminding us that God has done so much for us that we should never be able to make that mistake. These words are just as applicable now as they were at the time. Sure, I haven't had a host of plagues befall my enemies, had the Red Sea parted so that I could escape, have water spring forth from rocks or have food fall from the sky, but I have had protection from God. I have been provided for. I have had solutions present themselves that I never would have dreamed possible. How many times have all of us thought, or said, "There but for the grace of God go I"?

When something good happens, when we achieve success, it is easy to look back at the hard work we did to get there. The hours that we put in working towards that goal; the training or studying. And, of course, to some degree, all that is fair. We did make sacrifices and work hard. But, it is then that it is important to remember that it is all because of what God has done for us. How He guided us, put us in the right place at the right time, surrounded us with the right people, presented the right opportunities. If we forget that, and forget to give glory to God for our successes, we lose focus. We start to focus on the fame, or the adulations, or the money, or the certificate. In short, we focus on the earthly rewards. Those can become gods with a little g that Moses warned of and explained will lead to our destruction.

Too often, I go to God in prayer only asking for something - in times of trouble, or when I need guidance. It is good and right to turn to God in those times. It is equally good and right, however, to turn to God in times of celebration, too. Just to take time to thank Him and to praise Him. I hope that you will join me today in taking a few minutes to give thanks to God.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Somewhere in the Middle

Recently, as reflected in several posts, I have been really trying to explore how I get to the next step in my relationship with God. How I really, truly, let go and let God. How I say "As You Wish." And how I even know when I have. How I get comfortable that something is really what God wants, not what I want. And how I reconcile all of that with the idea that despite God's master plan for my life, not every step needs to be scripted by Him - I believe that sometimes He just lets me choose any of the multiple paths to get to where He wants me.

As I have been struggling with this, I have been listening to the song "Somewhere in the Middle" by Casting Crowns a good amount. The song really speaks to me. I suggest that you check out the complete lyrics, purchase it for your IPOD or buy the CD and listen to the song. But, just to get the point across, here is a verse followed by the chorus (I apologize in advance for the much longer quote than usual, but I want to share at least this much):

"Somewhere between my heart and my hands
Somewhere between my faith and my plans
Somewhere between the safety of the boat and the crashing waves
Somewhere in the middle you'll find me

Somewhere between a whisper and a roar
Somewhere between the altar and the door
Somewhere between contented peace and always wanting more
Somewhere in the middle you'll find me

Just how close can I get, Lord, to my surrender
Without losing all control?

Fearless warriors in the picket fence
Reckless abandon wrapped in common sense
Deep water faith in the shallow end
We are caught in the middle

With eyes wide open to the differences
The God we want and the God who is
But will we trade our dreams for His
Or are we caught in the middle?"

I think the song does an amazing job of capturing the struggle of truly giving it up to God. I particularly focus on the question "How close can I get, Lord, to my surrender, without losing all control?" That is exactly where I find myself a lot of the time. Losing all control is just plain scary. But until then, aren't I really just that person claiming to have "deep water faith" but hesitating or fearing or refusing to take the step into the deep end? And that part about trading my dreams for His . . . .

Sometimes, I think I do take that step into the deep end, but I don't even know if that is true. If I decide that I am comfortable with something, does that mean that I have let go? Isn't the point of faith doing a cannonball into the deep end because you just trust that God is in control? Instead, rather than diving in, my progress often is more like slowly getting into deeper and deeper water until what seemed very deep before is now nothing to think about. And, hey, progress is progress. It wasn't too long ago that I wouldn't have stepped into the baby pool.

But what makes the song so special to me as I try to figure this all out, is the ending.

"Lord, I feel You in this place
and I know your by my side
Loving me, even on these nights,
when I'm caught in the middle."

I have reached a point where I recognize that God doesn't want me to be in the middle. He doesn't just want some of me. He doesn't want me just getting close. But, I also believe that despite the fact that I am not there yet, God with his infinite patience has not given up. God is by my side, cheering me on, and loving me even though I am still Somewhere in the Middle. Even right now as I sit in my office writing this, I can feel that presence.

I don't know where people reading this may be in their own personal relationship with God. If you have made that next step - Praise God! But, in my experiences with people, I think a lot of people are like me; somewhere in the middle. Some have just taken the smallest of steps into the baby pool, and some are almost fully underwater. The point is regardless of where you are, while God may still want more of you, He is by your side and loving you. Don't forget to take notice that.

* * *
I always re-read my posts at leastonce before I put them up (which likely leads several of you to ask why I don't catch more of the typos then). When I did that this time I decided to make edits to the first paragraph to be more honest. In the first draft, almost every where that it says "I" the first draft said "you" o r"we". While I am interested in the topics in a generic sense, it is really in order to apply it in my own life, so "I" is much more accurate.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Servants' Entrance

Two weeks ago I attended a United Methodist Volunteers In Mission training session at Dranesville United Methodist Church. The training was to become "qualified" to lead an UMVIM trip. Although I have had the training before, I decided to take it again. I feel strongly about church members (e.g., non-clergy) having the opportunity to lead mission trips. I want to encourage as many people as I can to step out in mission and in order for that to happen, the church leaders have to be comfortable that there are people to lead them. So, because I want others to take the training, and because I hope to lead another trip myself at some point and want it to be a success story, I thought I would take the training again.

But, I digress.

In addition to the person leading the training, the church's lead pastor - who has himself participated in something like 140 mission trips - was there all day. To start the day, he took us into their chapel, spoke a little, gave us some quiet time for reflection and prayer, and then led us in prayer. It was a good way to start the day. But, what really moved me, and inspired this post, is that he pointed out a sign that typically hangs over the only exit from the chapel. Everyone must walk through that door and under that sign, which reads "Servants' Entrance"

What a great reminder that when we leave that church and go out into the world, we are called to be servants. As Jesus said "[W]hoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Matthew 20:26-28 (NIV) Jesus himself, the King of the Jews, came to earth - to live and die as a human - not to rule, but to serve. Even as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the adoring crowds greeting their long-awaited king, He was not coming as a ruler. As we all know, he was coming to serve all of us.

While I do not know it to be true, I strongly suspect that a lot of people spend more time in this week between Palm Sunday and Easter thinking about Jesus and their faith than they do at any other time of the year. Of course, Christmas is great, but this week is what it is all really about and what can really make you think. So, while I know that I would benefit from the weekly reminder that the folks at Dranesville UMC get, particularly this week, while so many others are thinking about it, and when the message is so clear, join me in trying to remember that we are called to be servants.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Please Excuse Me While I Remove The Plank From My Eye

This morning I drove Alex and one of our neighbors to school so that they could be there at 6:30 for a field trip. We briefly parked and I walked them into the school. As I was driving off, my car made a "dinging" noise and the door open light came on. Since there was a line of traffic trying to get out of the school parking lot, I couldn't really pull over right away. I will admit that I was a little bit frustrated that they had not closed their door when they got out. I may have uttered a few comments under my breath.

Eventually I got to a spot where, without stopping the car, I could lean over and open and close the passenger door. It made the satisfying "thunk" of a door securely closed and I kept on driving.

Then I looked down and saw that the light was still on. For those of you who do not know, I have a little car that only has two doors. Obviously something was wrong with the warning lights on my car again, because the only other door is the one that I got in. Then, for the first time, I considered whether it may just be me that didn't close the door. And, of course, it was. I opened and closed the door and the light went off - all was well.

I immediately felt pretty bad for my self-righteous condemnation of the kids for not closing the door when they got out of the car (ok, ok, in all honesty it never even passed through my head that it may have been the neighbor's kid, I assumed it was Alex). Then I thought of the passage from Matthew:

"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."

Matthew 7:3-5 (NIV)

I am sure that there are many other examples in my life of the need to remove the plank from my eye, but my quick (thankfully solely internal) criticism of my son for something that it turns out he didn't even do really struck home this morning. It emphasized to me how quick I have been to criticize a lot of different things and people without taking the time to look at my own issues.

I'm going to try to do better.